The timing of Retrograde is fitting: Poitier died in early 2022, and the singer Harry Belafonte, frequently referenced in the play, passed away this week, though Cameron couldn’t have predicted this at the time of writing.
More of a gamble is the story Cameron has chosen to tell. A triumphant, zero-to-hero-against-the-odds version of Poitier’s narrative could have homed in on milestone moments in his illustrious career, shining a light on his achievements in order for audiences to applaud them retrospectively. Bravo to Cameron for daring to focus instead on a specific, difficult choice that Poitier had to make in 1955, when a work contract was promised in return for his silence on Civil Rights. The resulting play is an intense, heart-in-mouth reminder of the unabashed racism Poitier had to fight before finding his supporters within Hollywood’s elite.
Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine) and Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) in Retrograde. Photo: Marc Brenner
Director Amit Sharma’s production is set entirely in designer Frankie Bradshaw’s fond homage to a 50s Hollywood office: mid-century wooden furniture lines the boxed-in space, a poster for Abbott and Costello’s 1951 movie Meet the Invisible Man hangs on the wall and a record player wafts gentle jazz across the auditorium.
NBC employees Bobby (a chirpy, loud-mouthed Ian Bonar), a writer, and Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine as a pressure cooker of entitled rage), a lawyer, have arranged a meeting with rising Black actor Sidney Poitier (a phenomenal Ivanno Jeremiah), but they can’t see past his race. Wince-worthy slights (such as Bobby proudly declaring ‘I am the blackest white guy you know’ and the pair of them begging Sidney to say something in his former Caribbean accent) foreshadow career-shattering blackmail as Mr Parks identifies the poised, quietly determined Sidney as an easy target for some red-baiting, threatening him with the Hollywood blacklist of communist sympathisers on no grounds but his race.
Bobby (Ian Bonar) and Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) in Retrograde. Photo: Marc Brenner
Sharma’s production is relatively static, placing paramount emphasis on the verbal cross-fire between the three men. As a result, the 90-minute drama can feel dense in places, but stay focused: Cameron doesn’t waste his words and he’s a master of powerful one-liners. ‘I know more about your tomorrow than you know about your yesterday,’ the bullying Mr Parks hurls at Sidney in one especially viscous moment. In another, when Sidney calmly states: ‘Get ready, we’re coming, expect us,’ you’ll probably want to cheer.
Of course, this threatening encounter didn’t topple the career of Sidney Poitier, who went on to spend over 60 years making movies as well as working as a diplomat. While Cameron’s tight, one-act play doesn’t focus on its character’s chief successes, or the many accolades he was awarded for them, a final, empowering scene reminds us of who this man went on to become, despite what he was up against.
Retrograde takes us behind the scenes of Sidney’s struggle to find his place in Hollywood, and with it Cameron proves his versatility as a playwright, cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting voices in theatre today.
|What||Retrograde, Kiln Theatre review|
|Where||Kiln Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London, NW6 7JR | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Kilburn High Road (overground)|
20 Apr 23 – 27 May 23, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|